On Sunday morning I had opportunity to preach at Lesmurdie Baptist Church, and it was a delight, as ever, to join the folk there in worship. I have wonderful memories and many friends from my time there as pastor.
I was a little nervous with the prospect of preaching my message, being quite aware that I was taking the role of a theological provocateur. The focus of my ministry has always been to build faith and congregations, yet I was aware that my message on Sunday could be disruptive to the faith of some of the people there, and perhaps disruptive in the life of the church generally. Still, I think the topic was important enough to risk this disruption, though I hope, for the sake of the people and the pastoral leadership, that the overall result is positive for the church.
But maybe I was concerned unnecessarily? The response of the people during and after the message was very heartening. Many in the congregation work or have worked in science-related fields and appreciated a forthright attempt to affirm the value of science and seek to build a positive bridge of dialogue between theology and science. At the end of the sermon the pastor facilitated a brief Q&A session, with two very thoughtful questions put to me.
The first question was, “How can there be death prior to sin?” This question puts its finger on perhaps the key theological issue to be faced when discussing human origins and the possibilities of evolution, progressive creation, etc. I reiterated the point made in the message itself, that perhaps we must think of the nexus of sin and death only in relation to the spiritual relationship given to humanity by God as modern humanity emerged in accordance with God’s purpose and activity. But there is a cost here: the acceptance of death as a normal part of earthly or physical existence. The fossil record argues for this reality with the death of creatures prior to the advent of modern humanity.
The second question was a ‘doozy:’ “if God calls humanity to join his creative activity, his ongoing project of creation, might this ‘play’ include practices of genetic modification, particularly with reference to designing babies, selecting gender, striving to eliminate diseases and so on?” I answered this question as best I could given the very limited time and my own limited competence in medical or bioethics. I tried to show that the use of technology and the practise of science are not neutral, but instead are value-laden activities which might be directed to life-affirming and beneficial ends, or life-destroying and manipulative ends. I suggested that great care and much ethical reflection is required as we think through the manner in which we apply the results of scientific research. This, of course, is one way in which theology might speak to science, by calling science away from philosophical naturalism toward a higher and grander vision of existence and reality.
As I was answering the first question I became starkly aware of a tangential but important point: young earth creationism cannot maintain a positive and open dialogue toward the world of science, but can entrench only a divisive and oppositional stance between faith and science. It will lead only to the ghettoising of Christian faith. It wants to speak to science but cannot allow science to speak to it. In an age in which a fulsome dialogue between faith and science is desperately needed – not simply for defending the credibility of faith, but also for enhancing the human vision and practise of science – this form of Christian withdrawal from the dialogue would be and is a disaster.
This sermon task challenged me in quite a number of ways. It has been the most demanding sermon I have faced in quite some time. Thank you, Lesmurdie, for forcing me to push my own boundaries!